As we approach another long election cycle in the United States, news outlets will be reporting on the political trends of evangelicals. It is often reported that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and they continue to remain faithful to him almost three years into the completion of his first term in office. As a result, many approach those who identify as an evangelical with suspicion. In many circles, the word has become a pejorative — a Christian religious fanatic who uses the means of politics to push their moral agenda. This has caused many Christians who have traditionally identified as evangelical to either drop the descriptor or preface it with statements like, “Yeah but I am not like that.”
My wife and I have experienced this suspicion firsthand. One evening, she was gathering with some women for an evening out. While waiting at her friend’s apartment for the rest of the group to arrive, a news story aired about American evangelicals’ continued support for Donald Trump. The story featured notable evangelical pastors such as Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and President Trump’s top spiritual advisor, Paula White. Knowing that I am a pastor and one who identifies himself as an evangelical, my wife’s friend leaned over and asked, “So, is your husband one of those?”
Evangelicals are not, nor have they ever been, a homogenous group in America. The word evangelical finds its roots in the Greek word euangelion, which means “gospel” or “good news.” This term was originally used by the Roman Empire to convey that a conquered nation had now been brought within the boundaries of its civilization. The first Christians, living within the empire, used this word to herald the central tenet of the Christian faith: that Jesus Christ by his death has forgiven humanity’s shortcomings, also known as sin, and, by his resurrection and ascension, conquered death so that an individual now stands innocent of any past transgressions as a child before the one just and holy God of Israel.
In a world where at least 40 percent of the population was enslaved and the pantheon of Roman, Greek, and Assyrian gods were associated with power and empire, this euangelion that God — in his son, Jesus — had made slaves his children was profound. That good news spread like wildfire across the empire and beyond. Early in the history of the church, the word evangelical was transformed from not only a noun but into the verb evangelize: to share this good news with a world that needs to hear it. The point being that the word evangelical historically has not been used to identify a sect of Christianity. Rather, it’s meaning describes a core part of the Christian faith.
The first time evangelical was used as a descriptive for a certain group of Christians was in the 1500s, during the Protestant Reformation. Rome labeled clergy and nobility who were supportive of the doctrines that came from the Protestant Reformation as evangelical. Rome’s criticism was the only thing this group ever emphasizes is the Gospel — the euangelion — over and above the tradition of the church and acts of penance and piety. Around this time, the term evangelical became associated with Protestants across Europe. In many places today, like Germany, a Protestant Church is still referred to as the Evangelical Church.
In each place Protestantism took root, cultural contexts shaped it. In the United States, denominationalism played an important role in shaping Protestantism. Denominations sprang up out of ethnic and pioneering enclaves, giving evangelicalism in this country a real sense of diversity. Nevertheless, evangelicals were bound together across denominational lines by a common commitment to the supremacy of the Bible in regard to life and doctrine, the reality of human sinfulness and its total corruption, and therefore, the importance of the person and divinity of Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. It is important to note that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, evangelicals across Protestant denominations, especially in England and the United States, were on the front line of key social justice movements, such as the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. For evangelicals, the Bible was clear that these injustices were blatant violations of God’s command to love one’s neighbor.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great exodus of people from New England and Virginia to the frontiers of the Midwest and the West, hoping to “manifest destiny” their ways into new lives created a new evangelicalism tempered by the values of rugged individualism. The vastness of the country also made it difficult for new converts, who felt called to ministry, to receive formal seminary training and education, which helped breed a form of anti-intellectualism in some parts of evangelicalism. “Just Me and My Bible” and “Deeds Over Creeds,” although antithetical to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, became working slogans for many American evangelicals.
In the twentieth century, as a result of two world wars and America’s central role in them, many evangelicals embraced a providential understanding of world history and America’s role in it. For example, in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, many American evangelicals saw this as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and became infatuated with eschatology and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. American freedom and folklore became blurred with scripture and Biblical figures, particularly within evangelical circles not connected to a larger denomination. Something different had emerged among these evangelicals: a new religion of the American State whose gospel was not the atoning work of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world, but an American Jesus who upheld (and was the means of achieving) the values of white middle-class 1950s America.
So what was happening to evangelicalism? The best illustration I have to offer comes from the 1956 science-fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While on the surface a typical science-fiction flick, Body Snatchers provides insight into McCarthy-era America. The movie’s story involves alien spores that have fallen to earth. These spores grew into pods that hatched aliens who looked like humans, talked like humans, but most certainly were not humans. At first, the invasion was written off as a delusion or misunderstanding— until it was too late.
Something similar happened within evangelicalism in America. In 1979, this religion became one of the most influential and driving forces in American politics. It really began to surface publicly when self-professed evangelical Christian and Baptist Sunday school teacher President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for reelection. Under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, this new religion, with the misleading label of “evangelical,” mobilized into one of the most powerful political lobbies in American history.
For Falwell and his group, the meaning of evangelical had shifted from its origin of euangelion to a new and distinctly American morality. Many evangelicals rightly looked upon Falwell and his coalition with great suspicion, seeing them forcing an unwanted form of morality upon the nation. Nevertheless, in one year’s time, Falwell and his sympathizers had politically mobilized in almost every state, held significant influence in many of the largest churches in America, and had drowned out or co-opted any alternative evangelical voice.
The Reverend Falwell and his movement, known as the “Moral Majority,” opposed what they saw as the secularizing agenda of the Democratic Party, over and above the moral values of the Christian faith, which they believed was the very foundation of our nation. Their political and social ideology was rooted in the idea of an American theocracy. Their platform was essentially the cultivation of America’s moral salvation, which included strong ties to the state of Israel, censorship of all major media outlets, and opposition to the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. In many ways, this new politicized religion embodied a complete reversal of many of the social justice movements that historically defined evangelicalism. It backed Ronald Reagan, a Republican with tangential ties to mainline Presbyterianism, and whose wife regularly consulted psychics and astrologers (clear no-no’s in the Bible).
The question must be asked of evangelicals: What were the spores that fell from space and created these “pod people”? What directs a moral compass that condemns President Bill Clinton for his sexual misconduct, argues that the immoral character of our public figures leads to the lawlessness of our nation, only to condone, endorse, and defend another man with a history of three marriages and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct? A man who has said things that run contrary to classical evangelical theology such as, “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”
In his recent Time magazine article, “Evangelicals Are Supporting Trump Out of Fear, Not Faith,” David French rightly argues that the spores are fear.
Talk to engaged evangelicals, and fear is all too often a dominant theme of their political life. The church is under siege from a hostile culture. Religious institutions are under legal attack from progressives. The left wants nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients and contraceptives, it wants Christian adoption agencies to compromise their conscience or close, and it even casts into doubt the tax exemptions of religious education institutions if they adhere to traditional Christian sexual ethics.
This fear is perpetuated by the heirs of the first generation of the Moral Majority, which includes Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., and the religion’s prophets—the radio and television pundits. French points out that this fear was raised to a fever pitch by pundits when the very idea that Hillary Clinton, who was a devout Methodist and arguably more involved in church than Donald J. Trump, became the Democratic candidate for president. Quoting Christian writer Eric Metaxas,
French makes his point:
[I]f Hillary won, America’s chance to have a “Supreme Court that values the Constitution” will be “gone.” “Not for four years, not for eight,” he said, “but forever.” That wasn’t faith speaking. They were the words of fearful men grasping at fading influence by clinging to a man whose daily life mocks the very values that Christians seek to advance.
Unlike classic evangelicalism, this new religion has no savior, so it needs to hope that Donald Trump will save it, be it through backing the state of Israel or through the Supreme Court ending a woman’s right to choose. This all runs counter to classic evangelicalism, which has sung the theme for centuries in their great hymns: “all my hope in God is founded.” In acting as if Trump is their savior and blindly backing him at all cost, these evangelicals discredit the entirety of the evangelical movement. It makes one wonder if shunning the title and the group altogether might be a valid move.
Famed Christian thinker C. S. Lewis prophetically illustrates the ramifications of what we are experiencing in this country in the seventh and final book of his Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle. In the book, an old ape named Shift devises a scheme to dress up his friend, a donkey named Puzzle, as the Christ figure, a lion named Aslan. They dupe many of the Narnians into believing that their bizarre demands are actually the will of Aslan. When the ruse is finally discovered, for many of the Narnians, the very name Aslan becomes a trigger, while others lose interest and actually begin to hate the real Aslan along with the goodness he actually represents. This, I fear, is the endgame of a politicized religion that has masked itself with the evangelical label.
A deeply polarized American populace has been presented primarily with a false version of evangelicalism for the past forty years, its current iteration being as a politicized religion, hatched by an old ape named Falwell and now embodied by a roaring donkey with a golden mane named Trump. “So, is your husband one of those?” Obviously not. When we move beyond this administration though, Christianity in general may find itself on the margins, among the outcasts, and along the fringes of our society. I believe this may be to the good: those outer places have often been where Christianity has been at its best. Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection are at the center of our message, was originally, and always will be, found on the fringes. In no way do I want to convey that Christians should not ever be in politics. Rather, my hope is to shine a spotlight on some of the historical factors that led to a perversion of evangelicalism in this country. Losing our prominence in the halls of power may enable us to rediscover our true voice, so that we can, in humility, working together with all people, of every faith and goodwill,
Reverend Jacob A. Smith is the rector of Calvary-Saint George’s Episcopal Church near Union Square in Manhattan. He is also the cohost of a weekly podcast entitled Same Old Song. https://thesameoldsong.fireside.fm/rss
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